Last weekend saw Hillary Clinton finally concede to Barack Obama in the Democratic Party’s contest to choose its presidential candidate.
For their part, the Republicans settled on John McCain as their candidate several months ago.
Superficially the two party’s candidates could not appear more different. Obama is a 46 year old black man and relative newcomer to the US political establishment, having been elected a senator for Illinois in 2004.
John McCain, in contrast, is a 71 year old white man who has been a senator for Arizona since 1987. This is the second time he has run for the Republican presidential nomination, having challenged George Bush in 2000.
McCain also has a reputation as a “maverick”, based on the occasional liberal stance he has taken on issues such as stem cell research, immigration and campaign financing.
In particular, the conservative Christian evangelicals that were so vital to electing Bush in 2000 and 2004 view McCain with suspicion.
But on the issues that matter most – the war in Iraq and the rapidly deteriorating economic situation – McCain represents continuity with Bush.
He is, if anything, more hawkish than Bush on the war, cracking tasteless jokes about bombing Iran and declaring that keeping US troops in Iraq for a hundred years would be “fine with me”.
On economic matters – and at a time when US unemployment rates are rising at their fastest pace in 20 years – McCain backs Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy and wants to see government spending reduced. He supports extending the “free market” in healthcare.
These policies are unlikely to make McCain popular. The backlash against Bush that saw the Democrats sweep to power in Congress in 2006 is centred on anger at the Iraq war and concern over economic issues.
The Obama camp is keen to brand McCain as “McBush” – and McCain is equally keen to distance himself from the White House’s current incumbent.
There is widespread popular distrust of the entire political establishment in the US.
Obama has tapped into this climate and managed to present himself as the candidate of “change you can believe in”.
All these factors play against McCain and in Obama’s favour.
The fact that the Democratic presidential nominees raised far more campaign cash than their Republican counterparts also suggests that US corporations have decided to throw their lot in with the Democrats.
So the presidential election is Obama’s for the taking. Nevertheless, two factors could still trip him up.
The first is racism. The later, dirtier stages of Hillary Clinton’s primaries campaign saw her making increasingly overt appeals to racist Democratic supporters who could not stomach the prospect of a black man as US president.
And once awakened, this racist sentiment is hard to satiate. Despite Clinton’s formal endorsement of Obama, some of her die-hard supporters say they would rather vote for McCain than the “upstart” who “stole” the Democratic nomination from her.
The second factor is Obama’s own weaknesses. Despite his liberal background and the fact that his campaign has relied on young grassroots activists who oppose the war in Iraq, Obama has shifted to the right on every occasion that he has been tested.
His readiness to water down his policies in the face of right wing pressure can only demoralise his own side in the long run.
If Obama wilts and the hype surrounding his campaign runs out, McCain could still find himself headed for the White House in November.